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[vimeo http://vimeo.com/12767232]

(Visual Abstract, First Movement, Music by Pierre Jalbert, Film by Jean Detheux)

On January 8th, 2011, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the Houston TX new music group Musiqa presents Real and Imagined – a concert collaboration with Aurora Picture Show featuring Theo Loevendie’s Six Turkish Folk Songs as well as music by Eve Beglarian, Paul Frehner, and Evan Chambers. Houston-based composer Pierre Jalbert’s Visual Abstract for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion will be performed live to a film created by Jean Detheux. The concert will be conducted by Houston Symphony Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell.

Led by five composers (including founding member Pierre Jalbert) Musiqa is receiving a great deal of notice for its innovative multi-disciplinary concert events (dance, visual art, and theater are always integrated into Musiqa performances) as well as its educational programming that annually reaches thousands of Houston area students. Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary.

Pierre Jalbert graciously responded to a few questions about Visual Abstract:

Chris Becker: Did Jean Detheux create his film before, after, or during the composition of Visual Abstract?

Pierre Jalbert: He created the film after the piece was written. The music was commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble a few years back. Jean and I worked on a project last year in which he created a film first and I wrote the music to the film. That work was entitled L’œil écoute (The Eye Listens), and was also premiered by PNME. This time around, we decided that we would reverse the process, and he would do his film to the already existing music.

Chris Becker: In performance with the film, is the conductor watching the film for the timing of some of your musical events? I’m thinking of the third movement where rhythmic hits coincide with abrupt changes in the film.

Pierre Jalbert: Yes, the conductor is looking at the film for cues from time to time, and we rehearse many times through to get the timing down. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult as each performance is slightly different. But Jean made the film to not have too many abrupt changes. But still, there are a a few that make it challenging.

Chris Becker: The layers of images in Detheux’s film are very rich and tactile. They remind me of natural phenomena, weather, or even what we “see” when we close our eyes and listen to the sounds around us. Speaking as a composer, what do you think makes an “abstract” work of visual art successful?

Pierre Jalbert: I think when one looks at the film and hears the music as a single entity, and one does not dominate over the other, but each enhances the other, then we have something interesting.

Chris Becker: Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. As one of the people who founded the organization, how does it feel to look back on all Musiqa has accomplished?

Pierre Jalbert: It’s amazing to look back and see how the organization has grown. I remember a few of us meeting at Tony Brandt’s house 10 years ago and brain-storming about what the organization could be. We wanted to get new music out into the community and into downtown and offer up repertoire that wasn’t being heard in Houston. All of the composers on the Artistic Board work really well together (Anthony Brandt, Karim Al-Zand, Rob Smith, Marcus Maroney, and myself), and that has been crucial in keeping things going through the years.

Tickets for Real and Imagined – including discounted tickets for seniors and students – are available for purchase on the Musiqa website.

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Shh! We’re improvising! The Lepers of Melancholy, Houston TX (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

While reading Conversing With Cage at a bus stop today, I stumbled across this funny yet in the end profound exchange (circa 1980) between John Cage and John Robert with Silvey Panet Raymond:

How do you consider new popular music – punk, New Wave?

What is the New Wave? I don’t really know what it is. If you could point it out to me, I might have some reaction.

It’s very simple, three – , four-chord stuff, aggressive, fast.

There’s a good deal of dancing on the part of the performers?

Usually jumping up and down

I’ve seen something like that. It was entertaining to see but not very engaging.

But they use very dissonant sounds; I wonder how you felt about that?

I have no objection to dissonance.

I know you have no objections, but I wanted to know whether you felt any pleasure that things were coming round to your way of thinking.

But this isn’t it, is it? Isn’t it a regular beat?

Not all the time.

I think it’s part of show business.

Aren’t you?

No.

In a marginal way?

No. I’m much more a part of music as a means of changing the mind. Perhaps if you want to say that, I wouldn’t myself.

Opening up the mind.

A means of converting the mind, turning it around, so that it moves away from itself out to the rest of the world, or as Ramakrishna said, “as a means of rapid transportation.”

So your music in itself is not that important.

The use of it is what is important.

The use rather than the result.

That’s what Wittgenstein said about anything. He said the meaning of something was in its use.

As exasperated as I get by quotes attributed to John Cage regarding jazz improvisation, so-called popular music, and well, composing in general, I have been and will continue to be educated, provoked and inspired by his writings and music. My most recent work-in-progress for five electric guitars and electric bass is in part a homage to Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) that utilizes notation borrowed from Leo Brouwer’s wonderful guitar quartet Cuban Landscape With Rain (1984) to realize various aleatoric events. How my new piece (or for that matter Brouwer’s) would sit with Cage and his desire that music realized via chance operations covert the mind of its performers and listeners is – since he’s no longer with us – open to debate.

Maybe including “…for John Cage…” in the title of my piece isn’t appropriate?

Cage also readily admitted he was “close minded…” about many things.

Does Cage present to you a similar grab bag of ideas – some valuable, some exasperating? Has your attitude and appreciation of Cage changed over time?

P.S. Have a safe and relaxing holiday!

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Skull courtesy of Casa Ramirez (photo by Chris Becker)

Skeletons! Witches! Vampires! No, I’m not talking about candidates in Houston’s midterm elections. I’m talking about Halloween and the two days that follow known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Like many other places in the Southern U.S., Houston culture is a healthy mix of the supernatural and the spiritual. In the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Meurtos, food, beverages, and sweets are placed on homemade alters as gifts for the spiritual manifestations of those who have passed who will, over the course of the 48 hours that is All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, visit the people they knew before the afterlife. Gift giving and the ephemeral nature of playing music – particularly improvised music – have all been on my mind lately.

In his recent book Tradition and Transgression about composer John Zorn, author John Brackett includes a chapter describing Zorn’s music from the perspective of “the gift and gift giving.” The composer receives a “gift” from an artist – maybe an artist from an earlier time – in the form of creative inspiration and techniques that can be applied to their respective medium and then passes the “gift” along in various forms of musical homage. There are so many examples of this practice in music. Many compositions by Charles Mingus are named for musicians he knew and loved and directly referenced in melody, harmony, and/or rhythm (A few examples are Reincarnation of a Lovebird, So Long Eric and Goodbye Porkpie Hat for Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy and Lester Young respectively). Certainly there are parallels between creating art and celebrating our ancestors. Maybe there’s actually no difference between the two actions?

Who are some of the composers, friends, and/or family members you yourself have paid homage to in musical form?

Alexandra Adshead and Chris Becker at Avant Garden (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

For the month of November, the tireless Dave Dove and his organization Nameless Sound continue their They Who Sound “First Time Duo” series at Houston’s Avant Garden, every Monday from 7pm to 9pm. Each week, two to four improvisers who have never played together share the stage to perform a set of entirely improvised music. This is a great concept, and I wonder if it could expand beyond its current network of free improvisers to include pairings with members of Houston’s classical, jazz, and rock communities. Maybe some students from Houston’s School for the Performing Arts could share the stage with people with a history in Houston’s free improv and/or so-called noise scenes and try to find some common ground?

Also at Avant Garden on the last Wednesday of every month, keyboardist Robert Pearson presents a program of experimental music (Robert was kind enough to invite me and Alex to play last Wednesday, and we had a ball). These Wednesday shows are also an opportunity to hear Robert who doesn’t play like anyone I’ve ever heard before. Imagine Matthew Shipp, former Birdsongs of the Mesozoic Roger Miller, and Erik Satie all at 200 bpm and you sort of get an aural impression of what Robert sounds like on the keys. The resulting music is almost Zen-like in spite (or maybe because of) the tempi. Go hear him for yourself!

On November 2, 2010, 7pm at Talento Bilingue de Houston, Cuban tenor Alejandro Salvia Cobas and belly dancer provocateur Ms. Y.E.T. perform at show of artist and longtime A.I.D.S. activist Lourdes Lopez Moreno’s show of hand built clay skeletons. Moreno’s work will be on display through November 7th. A short, spooky video featuring Cobas’ voice is up on YouTube.

On November 7, 7:30pm at Zilkha Hall, Houston’s composer led contemporary music organization Musiqa celebrates the work of Benjamin Patterson, a groundbreaking artist who was a founding member of the avant-garde group, Fluxus, and whose work explores the experimental and improvisational possibilities in music. The concert Born in a State of Flux(us) is free, and Patterson will be there for what should be a crazy evening.

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Ornette Coleman photo by Jimmy Katz

Fort Worth-born Ornette Coleman will perform November 18th, 2010 8pm at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall with his son Denardo Coleman on drums, Tony Falanga on acoustic bass, and Al MacDowell on electric bass. I can’t think of a genre of music that hasn’t been influenced by Coleman and his recorded legacy. He had a profound impact on musicians as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, John Zorn, and Jerry Garcia and at the age of 80, Coleman continues to disregard geographical, political and cultural boundaries in a relentless search to build upon his palette of sound.

A recent interview with Ornette Coleman conducted by bassist, singer, producer Jeremiah Hosea can be heard for no cost at Earthdriver.org. It’s an unusually personal and far reaching conversation that you won’t hear anywhere else. Hosea has been instrumental of promoting the work of several exciting rock, jazz, and avant-garde musicians in NYC, and I had been meaning for awhile to direct Sequenza21′s readers to his site.

Thanks to Houston’s Dave Dove for the news tip.

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[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N36TWwH98gE[/youtube]

This Friday and Saturday October 22 and 23, Andrea Liberovici’s multimedia work Mephisto’s Songs premieres a part of the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series. I’m not familiar with Liberovici, but I am familiar with Mephisto’s featured performer singer Helga Davis. In addition to Ms. Davis’ amazing vocals, the piece includes recorded narration by Robert Wilson and cello improvisations by The Kronos Quartet’s awesome Jeffrey Zeigler. Live musicians for this performance include Clarice Jenson (cello), Fred Cash Jr. (bass), and Abe Fogle (drums).

Some of you may be familiar with Helga Davis as a host of WQXR’s Overnight Music. She works frequently with composers Paola Prestini and Bernice Johnson Reagon who, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, created the critically acclaimed opera The Temptation of Saint Anthony with Davis singing the role of Hilarion. And some of you truly hip folks may know that she sings on two scores I composed for dance, Like Dirt for Racoco Productions and La Spectra for Movement Pants Dance. Davis is also a distinctive and powerful composer. Her solo shows combining song, spoken word, theater, and video at venues that include New York City’s Whitney Museum or Galapagos are not to be missed.

Check out the Apollo Theater website for ticket information for their Salon Series. An article about another one of Liberovici’s recent projects can be found here.

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Mezzo Soprano Zheng Chao

The music season has definitely kicked into gear all across the country. Sure, I will always love and find inspiration via New York City; I just received a great CD from a new friend in Brooklyn and the other night skyped for the first time with another NYC friend and collaborator who helped lead Burnt Sugar in a recent musical tribute to James Brown at the Apollo Theater (Salon Series at the Apollo is looking really, really cool. Miller Theatre, you have been warned…).

But I’m excited by the music new I’m reading from all the coasts (and Midwest). Here’s yet another great concert event taking place in my new home – Houston, Texas.

This Saturday, October 16th, Houston’s contemporary music group Musiqa launches its 9th season with the world premiere of composer Stewart Wallace’s chamber piece for She Told Me This composed for and performed by Mezzo Soprano Zheng Chao with a libretto by Amy Tan. Sara Jobin, Assistant Conductor of the San Francisco Opera, conducts. A native Houstonian, Wallace is best known for his opera Harvey Milk , which premiered in Houston in 1995. Zheng Chao’s recently diagnosed and current battle with lung cancer in part inspired Wallace to compose this piece especially for her. You can read more about Chao and her story here.

Saturday’s program also includes a world premiere dance performance by Dance of Asia America to works by Lei Liang and Lou Harrison as well as two pieces by composers Anthony Brandt and Todd Frazier commissioned for the recent anniversary of Rice University’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

It all takes place Saturday, October 16th, 2010, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. A pre-concert screening of a film about Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s collaboration takes place at 7:00 p.m. You can purchase tickets at www.musiqahouston.org

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It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.

Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.

After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:

What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?

The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.

Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.

The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?

The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.

From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?

This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.

Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’s What Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.

The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.

I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.

The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,
 800 Bagby St.,
 Houston, TX.

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Pyramid and Michelle Yom at Labotanica (Houston, TX)

This Friday, October 1st at 7pm, Michelle Yom will present her sound performance installation Back To Imagined Spaces at Houston’s alternative arts and music venue Labotanica located at 2316 Elgin Street. This is a part of Labotanica’s ongoing Hear/Her/Ear series spotlighting women in experimental music.

I got a chance to hear Michelle last month in a solo vocal set at Avant-Garden where she recorded and looped her singing in real time to additively build a series of haunting chorales. Michelle is perhaps best known as a flautist with a strong classical technique and the skills and imagination of a great improviser. Her flute and drums duo Doggebi features Michelle with drummer Spike The Percussionist – a musician I name checked in my Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise – freely and (almost) breathlessly improvising music that is somehow stark yet filled with a minutiae of details.

Back To Imagined Spaces imagines the human body as a collection of cells that sing and are heard in a “self-imposed timeless space” contained within the pyramid Michelle has constructed inside Labotanica. Regarding the music she will perform, Michelle writes: “The first set is a series of staccato vocalizations with syllables from the mantra, Asato Ma Sad Gamaya, processed through seven delays. The second set will be a live performance of tonal pieces titled Heart, Ears, Kidney, and Stomach, also using vocal sounds. The pieces are intended to capture a version of imaginary but prudent sounds, much like taking a microscope and focusing the lens into singing, living cells.”

Also on Friday’s program are performances by artist, vocalist and electronic composer Melanie Jamison and Labotanica’s tireless curator, visual and sound artist Ayanna Jolivet McCloud.

There is a $5 cover charge for the show. All proceeds go to the musicians. Michelle Yom’s installation will be up October 1st through October 9th, 2010.

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Joachim Koester, Still from Tarantism, 2007, 16mm black-and-white film installation. Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen, and Greene Naftali, New York.

2010-11 marks Houston based Musiqa’s seventh year of presenting free “loft” concerts at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Each of these informal, intimate concerts is produced in conjunction with a different exhibition.

On Thursday, September 23, 2010, at 6:30 p.m., in conjunction with the museum’s exhibit Dance with Camera, Musiqa presents a collaborative “loft” concert with video artists BeJohnny that will merge live music and video. The Thursday program includes Alvin Lucier’s Queen of the South and Frederic Rzewski’s To the Earth, featuring Craig Hauschildt and Luke Hubley on percussion.

I wrote about Musiqa and their May 2010 Hand + Made concert in my first Houston Mixtape for Sequenza 21. Musiqa percussionist Craig Hauschildt’s solo performance of Vinko Globokar’s primal piece of performance art Corporal was one of the highlights of that program, and I can’t wait to see what he and the rest of the ensemble have cooked up for this Thursday’s concert.

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What Not With Skyline (photo by Chris Becker)

As a recent transplant to Houston, I am just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of the city’s cultural scene, especially its music. Each article will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theater, visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, and all out noise will creep into future writing. The goal is to expand people’s perceptions (including my own) about how and where one can find innovative music.

Last Month (August) I visited Kaboom Books for the first time and in addition to buying a few great used books including a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act with its wonderful essay about Charlie Christian, I met and spoke at length with one of the owners about Kaboom’s former home New Orleans. For this summer’s White Linen Night, Houston sound artist Doren Bernard turned Kaboom Books into a sound installation with a mysterious piece of entirely comprised of sounds recorded within the store. As I moved through the aisles of Kaboom that night, Doren’s piece seemed to sit at the edges of my peripheral hearing creating an effect similar to seeing a ghost and then – after blinking your eyes – seeing nothing but the space where your spectre had made its presence known.

A friend from New York asked me for a little more detail regarding my comparisons in last month’s Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise between his city and Houston and each town’s respective “noise” level. He rightly pointed out that Houston, being more spread out with little or no zoning regulations, results in a more horizontal (as opposed to vertical) cityscape thereby diffusing and spreading out the noise of the city.

Horizontal also means you get to see wide-open skies and gigantic cloud formations from an uncluttered 360-degree perspective.

Clouds Over Tommie Vaughn (photo by Chris Becker)

Maybe this is a stretch, but I do wonder if Houston’s big skies and flat lands inspired the artist Mark Rothko directly or indirectly while creating the fourteen paintings contained in the Rothko Chapel. I do know Rothko worked closely with Philip Johnson and Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry in designing the sunlit chapel that would contain his fourteen paintings, and there’s no question in my mind that sunlight played a role in the planning and construction of the chapel. On a recent visit to the chapel (which is located in Houston’s Museum District), I was struck at how dramatically Rothko’s paintings transform in appearance as the light from the chapel skylight shifts in relation to cloud cover and Houston’s crazy weather patterns. These changes occur almost minute-to-minute, and the paintings transcend their frames, colors, and textures.

It makes absolute sense then that composer Morton Feldman was asked by John and Dominique de Menil to compose a tribute to Rothko. In his essay regarding the resulting work Rothko Chapel , Feldman writes that his choice of instruments was affected by the space of the chapel as well as by Rothko’s paintings and that he wanted the music to “permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room” just as the paintings seem to continue beyond the borders of their canvases. It’s a ways ahead, but on February 11, 2011, the Houston Chamber Choir and Da Camera of Houston will present Feldman’s Rothko Chapel as well as works by John Cage and Erik Satie in the Rothko Chapel to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

On September 21st, 7:30 pm at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, you can hear a performance of Thomas Tallis‘ 40 part motet Spem in Alium by the Houston Chamber Choir. This is another piece of music that permeates “the whole” of any space it is heard.

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